Alpha Dog: Interview with Nick Cassavetes

Inspired by actual events, Nick Cassavetes’ “Alpha Dog” follows three fateful days, when the lives of some Southern teens was at risk.

Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch), a cocky and headstrong teen, is a mid-level drug dealer in a comfortable sector of the sprawling, privileged neighborhoods in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley. For Johnny and his crew, landlocked in their suburban locale and with too much time, their existence is a blur of partying and looking for constant thrills.

The model of good life they imitate comes to them from rap music, video games, and moviesthey spend their conscious hours copying the thug life they idolize. Johnny has a wad of cash, beautiful girls, a thriving business, and plenty of weed to keep his friends stoned. Life for Johnny and his friends doesn’t come with any consequences. Anything can happen, and sure enough, over the course of three days, something does.

When raging hothead Jake (Ben Foster) fails to come up with deal money he owes Johnny, the situation escalates into a battle for domination that culminates with Johnny and his gang impulsively kidnapping Jake’s little brother, Zack (Anton Yelchin).

En route to Palm Sorings, the group decides to keep the kid as a marker and slowly begins including him in their schedule, alternating between parties and slack time. With no parents in sight, they grow used to having him around. Under the temporary care of Johnny’s charismatic friend Frankie (Justin Timberlake), Zack now enjoys an illicit summer fantasy of drinking, girls, and new experiences.

Out in the desert, everyone soon begins to lose sight that Zack is a hostage, a “stolen boy,” and he can’t just be simply returned. Hours turn into days, and solutions to the Zack problem begin to dwindle. Bad decisions are followed by worse ones.

Johnny’s father (Bruce Willis) attempts to track down his son and convince him to return the hostage. With police called in by the boy’s distraught mother (Sharon Stone), the situation grows more complex, and Johnny finds himself out of his league with no ideas how to fix it. For Johnny, the line between playing a thug and becoming one soon blurs, resulting in bad consequences for all involved.

In the summer of 2000, Nick Cassavetes began to outline about some of the types of teens that populated the high school of his daughter Gina. He pondered what would happen if a group of kids took a prank way too far, and made a series of decisions and missteps that would put them in a situation from which they could not be extricated.

While researching the family life of some of these San Fernando Valley kids, Cassavetes found their home dynamics to be surprising and particularly compelling.

Complicated World

I expected to find a bunch of spoiled, disaffected rich kids raised by parents with a great sense of ennui, and that not what I found at all. What I ended up finding, which frankly I’m guilty of in my own life, was that it’s a complicated world now where both parents have jobs and get caught up in their own lives.

By-product of research

The by-product of that is that you find yourself ‘checking in’ with your children to find out if they’re okay, where they are going to be and if they need any money, instead of putting in the time and hanging out with them.”

No Parental Guidance

That was the thing that impressed me the most and was the common thread among these people. Most of them were people I wouldn’t find. The problems were born out of letting all these children get together and make decisions without any kind of parental guidance or interference, and they created the ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances and coincidences that allowed something to happen than never should have.

Language as Assault

I had discussions with colleagues and extensive research about the types that inhabit this world. I found one of the keys to unlocking the script lay in the way these alpha-teens spoke. These are not really good kids that just lost their way for one weekend. I wanted to use language that the kids use, which is very offensive and almost an assault. But for me, that gave the film a type of genuineness.

Children Can be Ugly

I didn’t want to back away from them being unsympathetic. Children can be ugly. They have not had their time to get their routines and their personalities in order. They have many rough edges, and I didn’t want to lose that.”

Casting Process

I don’t audition people, because I don’t believe in it as a practice. I think that certain actors are great auditioners and kind of average actors, and certain actors are average auditioners but really great actors. What I’m looking for when I try to find someone for a part is someone who’s interested in their character, and someone that can communicate how they work, and we can share a kind of commonality in the way we work.

Emile Hirsch

I was extremely lucky in casting “Alpha Dog,” because nearly almost all of the first people I saw for the parts were the perfect people to play them. The role of egomaniacal ringleader Johnny Truelove went to Emile Hirsch (who appeared in Lords of Dogtown, The Emperor’s Club, and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys). Emile read the script and loved it. He said he had to do the part, and after meeting him, I thought he would be a great Johnny Truelove.

Bruce Willis

For the role of Sonny Truelove, Johnny’s enigmatic father and businessman operating on the outskirts of the law, I wanted to cast Bruce Willis. I forwarded the script to his agent. We weren’t even sure we had it in the budget, but it was still something we really hoped for. Bruce signed on and proved to be a fiercely dedicated presence, on set and off.

Justin Timberlake

I knew Justin would be perfect for the role of the charismatic, likable Frankie Ballendbacher. To me, the toughest character to embody in this story is Frankie, because he befriends the kids and allows these events to happen. I told Justin that I wanted him to do it, and he called me back a few seconds later and said he was in.”

Shawn Hatosy

For the role of Elvis Schmidt, the member of Johnny’s crew who remains somewhat of an outsider and carries through on the order to kill Zack, I chose Shawn Hatosy, who I directed in “John Q.” Elvis is an extremely challenging part to play and I knew that I needed someone who wasn’t just good, but was sensational.